NEWS INTELLIGENCE ANALYSIS
POLITICAL ART & COMMENTARY
ART & IDEAS
What is Neo-Nabism? By Katherine Yurica
[Editor's Note: This essay was originally penned by the author in 1988 on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Nabi movement in France.]
Being a Neo-Nabi artist or writer is a calling. Its a vocation, its not a job. Its a commitment that forces its will upon the character and life of its practitioners. In short, its a spiritual quest for Truth. And for this reason it differs from other art movements but has much in common with the Nabism that began in 1888 in France. To understand what is meant by Neo-Nabism, allow me to describe the beginnings of the Nabi movement.
The word Nabi (pronounced knobby) comes from the Hebrew word navi, for prophet, visionary or seer. And this connection with the Old Testament visionaries is the very heart and soul of Neo-Nabism. There were only two kinds of navis in the Old Testament: either a man or woman was simply called a prophet, which meant he or she was a true prophet or he or she was labeled a false prophet. False prophets lied. They manipulated. They deceived. True prophetstrue navisspoke the truth all the time and relinquished any possibility of manipulating anyone.
The commitment to Truth of Old Testament nabis went beyond the spoken word, it embraced their art and literature. It permeated their poetry. The concept of Truth was fired into their metaphors and imagery and emblazoned upon their woven tapestries in brilliant hues of purple, crimson and gold. There were no shortcuts to intellectual growth and honesty. Methodology was important; it was painstakingly honest.
Most people are unaware of the enormous contribution to western civilization made by the Jewish prophets. Our laws, our moral code, our literature, art and even our science grew out of their work. Moses, the greatest of Old Testament nabis, demonstrated his commitment to Truth by introducing to civilization the demarcation between science and pseudo-sciencea distinction so profound that it parallels the definition given by Karl Popper, the twentieth centurys brilliant philosopher of science. And what is more, Moses established the scientific method millenniums before the advent of western science. The Old Testament nabi was scientist, religionist, philosopher, cosmologist, artist and writer all rolled up in one package.
It was fascinating for me to discover that a small group of six or seven young artists living in Paris in 1888 formed themselves into a society that had religious overtones and deliberately chose to call themselves the Nabis. Significantly, they clearly saw the relationship between truth and methodology. Maurice Denis, who became their theoretician, wrote: There are some of us who have a presentiment or know for certain that the Christian truth defines not merely the aim of their art, but the artistic means they must employ.
Denis thought of himself as a Christian artist. But although it is true that the Nabis were mostly Catholics, Jews were also part of the group. And they almost all had leanings toward theosophy. They were, in short, on a spiritual quest. At least two of them were violently anti-clerical, creating puppet plays attacking the blatant hypocrisy of a priest. But others, like Maurice Denis, were ardently pious, We are all preoccupied by God, he said.
Although they were artists they desired to influence their entire society. They wanted to reform customs and fashion and influence the politics of their day. (In these things they failed.) They wished to continue the ideas of Symbolism and they desired to work in a serene commune setting.
All of this was started in a very unpromising way. The Nabi art movement was apparently inspired by a single painting. It all began when Paul Sèrusier visited Paul Gauguin at Pont-Aven in Brittany. Sèrusier was profoundly influenced by Gauguin and he returned to his artist friends in Paris with Le Talisman, a painting which he gingerly carried on the lid of a cigar box and showed to Maurice Denis, Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Felix Vallotton and Paul Ranson.
The painting inspired the formation of the group and inspired Maurice Denis to pen his famous dictum that a painting, before being a cavalry horse, a nude woman or any other representation, is essentially a flat surface covered by colors that are united by a certain order. Whether Denis intended to legitimize abstraction as an art form isnt really material. It is a fact that his words, however unwittingly said, lived on and did prophesy art trends of the twentieth century. Denis single sentence is considered the summation of all the principles of the concept of synthesis.
Following Gauguins lead, the Nabis painted in simple, flat unbroken patterns, often using brilliant primary colors. (Although they later were to slip into the beautiful grays, they are credited with opening the twentieth century to the glories of colorparticularly the Fauves.) The Nabis largely abandoned the conventions of central perspective and emphasized the two-dimensional quality of their compositions. Theirs was an art of the imagination and dreams. They perceived art to be decorative as well as an expression of the artists inner soul. A picture had merit only when it honestly reflected the artists inner perception of realitythat is, the artist was not to strive for resemblance, he was to strive for interpretation. In fact, resemblance became the enemy of the Nabi movement. What counted was the mental image imagined by the artist, which necessarily embraced distortion and caricature if it were honest.
Since this is a sticking point even todayeven after the Fauveseven after Picassolet me put it another way. Its rather easy to see that in literature a precise and careful description of an urn does not make a poem. If I said, The urn is Grecian from about the second century B.C. and it is decorated with trees, youths piping melodies, young girls dancing, and it is fourteen inches high and has a seven inch circumference at its neck, I may have given a realistic enough description, but alas, it does not make the immortal Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats! The facts of the urn, including its resemblance were filtered through Keats imagination, and that glorious process gave us the kind of insightful truth that only great art can produce.
The Nabis believed that when an artist strove merely for resemblance, he necessarily used tricks to deceive the eye and most often, left mere descriptionnot artas his product. To the Nabis a picture had merit only when it possessed style and style meant that the painting was impressed with the artists personality and character. Given this expression, it is not surprising that the artists education played an important role in the movement.
The Nabis were distinctive in their passion for learning. They were very erudite and in touch with the latest developments in poetry, music and the theater. Their conversations were punctuated with philosophy and discussions on the Symbolist movement. As one historian put it: First and foremost there was the certainty, when they compared themselves with the other painters with whom they rubbed elbows that they were men of superior mentality and culture, with a culture that was not limited to the sphere of visual art but also embraced literature and music.
The Nabis of 1888 recognized that there was only one way to become an artist that is a Nabiand that was the hard way. In all my reading, the American artist Ben Shahn seems to best sum up this concept of the hard way in an address to Harvard students:
Attend a university if you possibly can. There is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do. But before you attend a university work at something for a while. Do anything. Get a job in a potato field or in the auto shop Never look down upon anything or anyone as not worthy of notice. In college or out of college, read. And form opinions! Read Sophocles and Euripides and Dante and Proust. Read everything that you can find about art except the reviews. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry . Go to an art school or take art courses at night if necessary Know all that you can both curricular and noncurricularmathematics and physics and economics, logic, and particularly history. Know at least two languages but anyway, know French . Listen to preachers in small town churches and in big city churches. Listen to politicians Go to all sorts of museums and galleries . Never be afraid to become embroiled in art or life or politics never be afraid to undertake any kind of art at all, however exalted or however common, but do it with distinction.
When I am asked, I advise young people not to become writers or artists. I tell them its too lonely. Theres too much suffering involved. But if one of them is insistent and says he must write or must paint, that there is some inner spiritual drive forcing him onward, that neither isolation nor alienation will stop him, that he can live only for Truth and that he will die if necessary for itI tell him he is a Neo-Nabi and may God help him!
K. Yurica "Vernacular"
I said him above not because I am unmindful of women artists; their lot is even worse than a mans. Notice, for example, how Georgia OKeeffe was often called the exemplar of the woman artist in America. Yet it was OKeeffes life, her aloneness, that seems to overshadow even her work. As one critic put it, to be a genuine female artist today, one must be a lover of silence and solitude and one must suffer. One must live apart from sources of ordinary human happiness. And one must be willing to live in exile in the midst of ones own time and place.
But suffering and poverty are the last things that anyone in his or her right mind would choose for a career. If one listens to the hucksters, no art student today intends to live a suffering and impoverished life when it is so easy to con the public into paying huge sums just for a signature. (Mark Kostabi unashamedly admitted that his paintings, which were sold for $10,000 to $60,000 each, were actually created and painted by a team of production artists who received seven dollars per hour for their efforts.)
Since there are two roads in art as everything else in life, the Neo-Nabi creator chooses the road less traveled. In this sense, character is destiny. The difference between the two paths is the difference between an authentic work and an imitation. And although every authentic artist is not necessarily poor, he has sufferedits a natural consequence of growth.
I firmly believe that the quality of a work of art is dependent upon the quality of the artist who produces it. Each painting or novel is the result of the depth and breadth of the vision and intelligence of the artist/writer. It is born from the sum total of the artists character. The work is derived from the artists understanding and sensitivity.
Some time ago, Franz Marc, the German Expressionist painter, made a prophetic judgment about the future direction of art. He said, The art to come will be the concretion in form of a scientific conviction. I believe that Franz Marcs prediction of the future has already happened, but in the ancient past, through the original navis. The art to come may well be the re-emergence of a very old and very wise understanding of reality. As Keats put it: Beauty is truth, truth beautythat is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Katherine Yurica has been painting all her life. She was educated at East Los Angeles College, the University of Southern California and the USC school of law. She studied art in Mexico where she worked in her studio in Marfil, just outside of Guanajuato. She returned to Los Angeles in 1967 bringing back over 80 paintings and drawings. She says of her art, "Henry Miller, the novelist, wrote a wonderful little book titled, "To Paint Is to Love Again." Miller said that he wrote when he couldn't paint and he painted when he couldn't write. She says that she adopted that practice. She is the author of three books. And she is also the publisher of the Yurica Report.
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How Art Creates the Artist
By Katherine Yurica
What Carl Jung wrote in 1933 is as
applicable to the lives of artists and art students
today as it is to playwrights and poets and
writers on the web. Jung understood not
only the role that religion ought to play
in our lives, but also understood that the
artists, the poets among us, are the bearers
of spiritual wisdom and insights, born out
of the womb of civilization itself.
the Next Step in Art?
by Katherine Yurica
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